People who crave for exotic food find sharks and rays as special treats. The meat of these rare fish species are discreetly sold in the market, unlike the ordinary fish caught in the ocean.
Sharks and rays are feared because of their sheer size and appearance. This, however, does not stop fishers from targeting these species because of the demand for meat and, lately, body parts, which are believed to have high medicinal properties.
Cooked in vinegar, locally called paksiw, the demand is especially high for baby sharks. Rays are especially cooked with coconut milk, or gata, and turned into kinunot or ginataang page.
Protected but targeted
Unlike in other countries where population of sharks and rays are declining because of bycatch or accidental catching, these species have a huge market in the Philippines.
Even the so-called gentle giant—the whale shark, or locally called butanding—is sometimes targeted. “Here in the Philippines sharks and rays are targeted for their meat and body parts. In other countries, for example, sharks are targeted for their fins,” said Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB).
Lim said sharks and rays meat are traditionally cooked and served as exotic dish, hence, making it doubly hard for concerned authorities to enforce the ban on catching specific shark and ray species covered by local and international laws.
Certain species of fish are covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which the Philippines is a member. The Philippines is also a member of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), which covers sharks and rays, they being migratory marine wildlife.
Last October the Philippines will host the CMS meeting, which will give the country the opportunity to set the tone for the protection of sharks and rays.
In particular, the Philippines will push for the listing of butanding, under Appendix I of CITES, to ensure their complete protection.
Thresher, silky sharks and mobula rays
The Philippines was among the parties that voted to protect certain species of sharks and rays on October 4, 2016. The vote was 108-29 for thresher sharks, 111-30 for silky shark and 110-20 for mobula rays, putting the marine species in the Appendix II of CITES.
Under the amended Philippine Fisheries Code of 2015, listing on CITES means automatic national protection. The ban on silky sharks took effect on January 2; the ban on mobula ray took effect on April 4, while that on thresher sharks will take effect on October 4.
AA Yaptinchay of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, a nonprofit, nonstock organization that aims to support the conservation and protection of marine wildlife species and their habitats, said hunting of sharks and rays is relentless in some provinces. He said they are still being targeted, and their illegal trade appears to be on the rise.
Yaptinchay noted that in February, authorities caught a couple with 2 tons of manta rays about to be sold to a big-time buyer.
He also cited reports that for centuries, fishing sharks and rays has become a way of life in some communities, as source of “exotic” dishes.
“Lately, because of the demand for internal organs, the commercial value of sharks and rays went up, thus, making them targets of fishers,” Yaptinchay said.
The internal organs of these species are believed to cure certain ailments, besides allegedly being aphrodisiacs. Shark’s fin is a special delicacy, besides being a popular bar chow among Filipinos, which also boost for their demand.
There is a strong resistance in communities because of poor social preparation in the implementation of the ban on catching rays. This only shows that poor law enforcement, Yaptinchay said, remains a big problem in the Philippines.
He blamed the government, particularly the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) for failing to conduct information campaign about the ban on catching sharks and rays.
Road map for sharks, rays conservation
The Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, along with Save Philippine Seas, Greenpeace Southeast Asia and other conservation advocates and environmental groups under Save Sharks Network Philippines, has crafted the 2020 Conservation Roadmap for Sharks and Rays in the Philippines.
Bringing an interdisciplinary, multistakeholder group together, the road map workshop held on February 21 and 22 in Cebu City is expected to play a significant role in strengthening the conservation of the Philippines’s shark species, and ensuring that the road map is supported by commitments and enforceable legislation.
There an estimated more than 200 species of sharks and rays in the country, making the Philippines one of the most important areas on the planet in shark and ray biodiversity.
Yaptinchay said only about 20 percent of the 200 species have legal protection under local and international laws.
Sharks and rays play a valuable role to the marine ecosystem. Many shark species are apex predators that keep prey populations healthy. The presence of thresher sharks and whale sharks in the Philippines also draws thousands of local and international tourists, supporting local livelihoods, according to Yaptinchay.
“Sharks are important to the Philippines not only in providing sustenance but also the livelihoods they provide through tourism,” said Anna Oposa, executive director of Save Philippine Seas.
“But there is risk that we could lose them if no management is put in place to conserve them,” she added.
Minimal regulations and policies are in place to ensure the sustainable use and management of sharks and rays. Their byproducts and derivatives are used for shark’s fin soup, fishballs, beauty products and local delicacies, such as kinunot.
Shark’s fins and ray gill plates are also exported to neighboring countries. “There are local ordinances that prohibit the catching, killing and selling of sharks, but we still lack a national strategy to protect them,” said Vince Cinches, oceans campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
“The 2020 Conservation Roadmap for Sharks and Rays will create a national strategy for the Philippines to ensure that we will thrive for every Filipino to enjoy in the future,” he said.
Not all sharks can be fished, as some species have very low productivity that they could not recover from any form of exploitation to their population.
“The trick is to be able to ensure that threatened species are protected, while those that can be utilized are done so sustainably,” he added.
The sharks and rays conservation road map calls for concerted efforts in the areas of research, community engagement, communication and governance—aptly described as the road map’s “four pillars”.
Under the road map’s target, by 2020 scientific and knowledge-based policies should be developed, adopted and implemented at international, national and local levels, and by 2030 scientific research and local knowledge should be the standards for pursuing and/or updating shark-conservation policies.
A most challenging task identified in the road map is mobilization and unifying stakeholders for a common goal.
It is targeted that by 2020, stakeholders that are dependent on shark fisheries have been identified, and mechanisms are established for their transition to sustainable fisheries or alternative livelihoods.
By 2030, stakeholders and local government units are expected to be proactive partners in ensuring that shark fisheries are at sustainable levels and, where necessary, the dependence on shark fisheries is minimized through equitable alternative economic opportunities.
Recognizing that initiatives to increase awareness have been limited to a small percentage of social-media users, the road map hopes that by 2020, all stakeholders can make informed decisions vis-à-vis sustainable use of sharks and mitigation of threats.
By 2030, shark conservation should be mainstreamed at all stakeholder levels, such that it becomes integral to stakeholder agenda, such as awareness and conservation values being incorporated into education systems, and biodiversity conservation in local development. Yaptinchay said the government should take the lead to address all issues on shark conservation by filling gaps and harmonizing existing policies.
The right legal framework and government support will ensure implementation of laws leading to the success of the conservation efforts on sharks. By 2020, the national government should recognize the importance of sharks as a valuable marine resource, whereby shark conservation is mainstreamed into the national agenda, and by 2030 government entities are equipped with scientific bases and local knowledge to make informed policies and programs that safeguard the conservation of sharks in the Philippines while upholding social equitability.
Changing the behavior
According to Cinches, breaking the habit is not easy. There are communities that are heavily dependent on fishing sharks and rays, like in the town of Jagna, Bohol, and some towns in the Bicol region.
But these should be addressed by all stakeholders by following a blueprint or road map on sharks and rays conservation.
“There is really a need to change our behavior toward sharks,” he said, including eating sharks, or using their byproducts, such as medicine and food supplement.
The objective of the road map for sharks and rays conservation is to conserve the species outside those already protected or covered by local and international laws, Cinches said.
He said there are local initiatives that adopted a model for sharks and rays conservation, such as Cebu, which can be replicated. All sharks and rays, whether covered by local or international laws—or not at all—are protected by local legislation.
According to Cinches, sharks are different from other marine species. Because of biological constraint, they can be easily driven to extinction.
“Sexual maturity of sharks takes a long time. Mating and reproduction also take time, making their reproductive capacity very limited. They easily succumb to external pressures, making them highly vulnerable,” he said.
Their population is hard or difficult to recover. “Under the road map, we identified shark species, about 200, including those to be identified in the future, which should be covered by protection and conservation measures,” he said.
“We are conserving sharks, basically to maintain their ecological function and for the people to sustainably benefit from sharks and rays for the long haul,” he said.